The Cradle of Aviation Museum has a legendary new occupant. It has a 64-foot wingspan and a distinguished combat history for the U.S. military.
On Sept. 14, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, accompanied by museum President Andy Parton and a roster of military and political VIPs, cut a blue ribbon that inaugurated the grand fighter plane’s permanent stay on Museum Row in Uniondale.
The plane is an F14 Tomcat, built in 1992 on Long Island by Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, which became Northrop Grumman. The fighter was nicknamed Felix because Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer’s sassy cartoon cat is painted on both its tail fins.
In its 14-year career, Felix was the first to fire its guns in combat in support of American troops in the Afghan and Iraq wars. In 2006, it was retired, having been the 711th of the 712 Grumman-built Tomcats to be built, and the last to fly.
From 2008 onward, Felix sat on Grumman Road in Bethpage, part of a monument created by the Northrop Grumman Retiree Club. Last year it was transported to the Cradle of Aviation Museum’s restoration hangar, where curator Joshua Stoff headed a team of expert restoration volunteers.
After a year of precise sanding, patching and repainting, the fighter gleamed in the September sunlight as a crowd of about 150 gathered to observe its special day.
“Rated high among aviation legends is the F-14 Tomcat,” said Vic Beck, senior director of media operations at Northrop Grumman, who hatched the idea that the firm should move Felix to Uniondale. “Long Islanders were essential in the design, construction and flight testing of this legend.”
“This Tomcat is a symbol of what Long Island has produced and can produce again,” Parton added. “So how about a round of applause for all of the men and women of Grumman?”
“This is a very important cultural and historical museum that we have here in Nassau County,” Blakeman said. “Everyone hears about Charles Lindbergh, but how many know that Harry Guggenheim financed the aviation industry in America in its infancy stage? He also financed rocketry exploration.” Guggenheim, a businessman, diplomat and philanthropist, lived in Manhasset.
Among the luminaries associated with the fighter jet was U.S. Air Force Capt. Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, who grew up on Long Island, the son of a Grumman test pilot. Snodgrass accumulated 4,800 hours in F14 Tomcats, more than any other military pilot, before dying in a plane crash in Idaho in July 2021.
The installation of Felix at the museum doubles as a tribute to Snodgrass. A plaque honoring him stands among the historical markers surrounding the fighter plane.
His wife, Cynthia Snodgrass, described watching her husband examine an F-14 at another museum some years before. “He knew that Tomcat,” she recalled. “But what I found so interesting was that the Tomcat appeared to know him, too. … If ever a man and a machine should be linked together, it’s Dale, whom the rest of you call Snort, and an F-14.”
“We’re honoring the greatest fighter pilot that ever flew the F14 Tomcat,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Robert “Hoot” Gibson, who had been a friend of Snodgrass since 1996.
Gibson himself flew the F4 Phantom in the Vietnam War. In 1973, he became a member of the operational squadron flying the F14 Tomcat.
“I was amazed,” Gibson recounted. “Everything the F4 Phantom could do, the F14 did it 25 and 50 percent better.”
The eruption of applause when Blakeman cut the ribbon died down only gradually.
“This is a big addition for our museum,” said Sal Martella, treasurer of American Legion Riders Post 1033, who watched the ceremony with other Legionnaires. “Look at this thing. It’s unbelievable.”